Will The Latest Iraqi Elections Be Legitimate?
This weekend there is voting in Iraq to choose local leadership in 14 of 18 of Iraq's provinces. So far there are some encouraging signs that this election may be viewed as somewhat more legitimate than the past elections in Iraq where Shiite and allied militia members once dominated the balloting and left many in the smaller Sunni community feeling disenfranchised.
Despite past U.S. concerns that Nouri al-Maliki was a largely ineffective leader, he did move ahead legislation through the Iraqi parliament that helps to remove political parties that are aligned with militia groups such as the Sadrists. Maliki viewed thia as an important step in keeping "criminal gangs" from dominating the political process. These armed militia groups even managed to once replace the elected mayor of Baghdad in armed coup and replace him with their own militia candidate at one time as a demonstration of their strength. But Maliki has managed to walk a tightrope and slowly weaken the grip of the militias and their political power in Iraq.
Iraq now has over 400 political parties, many of which were only recently formed meaning much more political diversity is now possible since the power of militia groups within both the Shiite and Sunni parties has now been diminished and the dominant Shiite majority bloc in Iraqi politics has suffered a number of recent political fractures. And with the angry departure of supporters of radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr from the ruling Shiite bloc in 2007, this leaves the other two large remaining Shiite parties including the Dawa Islamic Party of Nouri al-Maliki and the Islamic Supreme Council Of Iraq running on separate ballot party lists.
Nouri al-Maliki has also managed to gain widespread support for his moderate approach to rule in Iraq, where even in the Sunni community he has gained some decent popularity. This also translates into a lower level of sectarian tensions.
Another encouraging sign is that the role of women in Iraq seems to be rapidly growing despite many who follow conservative Muslim religious practices. Of the 14,431 candidates running in Jan 31 elections, 3,912 of the candidates are women. This is an all time high for any Iraqi election.
Also somewhat encouraging is that this latest election is supposed to be more democratic in nature than the past Iraqi elections which were done with something called a "closed-list" system. Voters had to choose a party, and then the parties selected the representatives to the Iraqi parliament. This latest election allows Iraqi voters to choose individual candidates from the ballot who are then elected based on the largest number of votes. This latest ballot should be much more democratic in nature as long as fraud in the vote counting is limited.
However, there still remains serious concerns that minority groups such as the Christians will not receive much representation. There was an attempt to remove Article 50 of the draft elections law that promised some representation for the Christian community by the Iraqi parliament, which resulted in violent protests and finally the UN demanding that the government of Iraq give fair proportional representation to the Christians in the government. Iraqi Christians also received some support from a Sunni Sadrist leader who believed that they should be included in the government. However, Christians are now only guaranteed just one representative in six provinces when the UN actually demanded that 12 seats be given. And three other minority groups have one seat each in the parliament as well. All of this falls far short of UN demands for fairness. Yet it is probably better than nothing.
Regardless, any new political leadership for Iraq faces a daunting task. There is a real shortage of clean drinking water. The sewer system of Iraq is only made for a population about one fourth the size of the current usage. Electrical service is still intermittent, and many in cities like Baghdad still have only 3 to 8 hours a day of electrical power, while many villages have never had electrical service. Many store-owners use their own gas powered generators to provide their own electrical service. And Iraq may have an unemployment rate of nearly 30% with little outside investment due to the violence in the country. And educational institutions have faced huge losses of teachers and professors as violence claimed many of their lives or religious militia gangs harassed females for attending school.
Iraq is a real economic basket case, and certainly ranks as as one of the poorest of oil producing nations in the world. And the recent huge decline in world oil prices has left the country largely broken and unable to pay for many vital functions. Iraq had based their government budget on oil revenues at around $80 or more dollars a barrel, not $42-43 a barrel like the current world oil prices have been.
This weekend's elections will be a real challenge. First whether these elections are really more democratic and fair than the past. And secondly, how will the new leadership deal with all of the serious economic and poverty problems in Iraq. So far only the violence problem has eased somewhat in Iraq, but a myriad of other problems remain like an ugly hydra and continue to challenge this complicated and troubled state.